We live in a world dominated by social media, and for an increasing number of us it’s how we get our news (more on that in a minute). What I’m wondering right now is whether or not we’re getting the same news, and what we should do about that.
Recently, when talking with a good friend, I brought up the Department of Justice (DOJ) report investigating civil rights violations by the Ferguson Police Department. Puzzled, my friend responded that she hadn’t heard of the report, but would be interested in reading about it. I was a little taken aback. From my perspective, the release of the DOJ report was the largest news story of the week. I could understand if my friend hadn’t read the entire 102 page report, but I was shocked she hadn’t even heard about it.
But then I remembered a conversation I had with my dad earlier this year. He called me, sounding frantic: “There’s a huge fire in Jackson by the Agricultural Museum! Are you okay?”
I was totally fine (although I do live pretty close to the Ag Museum). In fact, despite him being in Arizona and me being on the ground in Mississippi, a mile from the flames—I had no idea that the museum was burning. My father was watching the television news in Tucson, which was reporting on the fire. The Jackson news outlets were certainly featuring this story, too, but I don’t own a television.
I am not alone: Most of my friends don’t own televisions or subscribe to newspapers. According to the Pew Research Center, less than a quarter of Millennials (22%) read newspapers at least every other day, compared to 40% of adults overall. Overwhelmingly, Millennials get their news from social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
What does this really mean? This is what it looks like for me.
Most of my friends who comprise my social network tend to hold views similar to mine. This means that the things that are posted on my Facebook and Twitter news feeds are generally things I’m already interested in learning about. Meaning, I rarely read pieces that challenge my viewpoint. Generally, I am presented with news and content in which I have already expressed an interest—and frequently presented it from a perspective with which I am likely to agree.
So, for someone in my generation who doesn’t have a real investment in what’s happening in Ferguson, news of the Department of Justice report is unlikely to reach them. While I recognize that it’s unreasonable to think many people would read the full 102 pages, I do think it’s necessary we seek out the sort of information released in the report, and talk about its implications.
This got me thinking not only about how this impacts me personally as a Millennial and a citizen, but also about how it impacts the work I do as a Community Engagement Fellow. My job is focused on social justice. The way that we approach social justice is from an informed perspective. In seeking to repair the world and fight for justice, it’s imperative that we first learn about the statistics and realities of injustices in our communities and throughout the nation. That’s why we like to begin our partnerships with Jewish communities with a needs assessment process—some sort of activity that asks them to research statistics in their area and learn about the realities in their communities.
Ferguson and the DOJ report represents an important example. The extensive report gives us a window into the realities of police brutality and civil rights violations happening in our nation right here, right now. It’s news to which we should be exposed, whether or not it’s in our self-selected newsfeeds. At least reading a well-assembled synopsis of the report is an important start, and helps everyone join the conversation.
Although my generation has exchanged TV screens for phone and computer screens, we are still engaged. This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. While there, I had the opportunity to hear President Obama speak. At one point, he said something I felt deeply as I read the Department of Justice report. The President said: “All we have to do is open our eyes and hearts to see that this nation’s racial history still casts its long shadow upon us.”
Let’s open our eyes and our hearts, and continue the work of the brave men and women that fought against racism and oppression 50 years ago. I think it starts with all of us, not just reading whatever comes across our screen but seeking out information, multiple perspectives and most of all facts and full stories. We need to be aware that we might not all be getting the same news, and when we come across facts and full stories worth sharing, we should talk about them—online, and offline, too.
There’s a slight curve to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The curve means that you can’t see what’s beyond the bridge until you are halfway across it.
This weekend, I participated in a walk across the bridge, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. Because of the size of the crowd, it took at least an hour to slowly shuffle up that bridge, staring at the block letters spelling out the name of the KKK Grand Dragon it honors. When I finally crested the top, and was able to see past the curve, I was surprised by the sea of people swarming on the other side.
This weekend, the people on the other side were peaceful, wandering past vendor booths and a concert stage. But I realized that fifty years ago, when the original marchers began walking up that bridge, they had no way to know what was on the other side either… and still they kept marching.
Our morning started at Congregation Mishkan Israel, where hundreds had gathered to commemorate Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. There are only about ten Jews living in Selma today, yet almost every seat in the synagogue sanctuary was filled. People came from all over the country, including a group from North Carolina that had traveled all night by bus, and were hours away from an equally long trip home.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l, was the star of the show. In 1965, after marching, he famously said he felt as though his feet were praying. His daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, addressed the crowd in 2015. She offered some context for that famous quote: He may be lauded today as a Jewish hero, but he wasn’t at the time; most Jews responded to his involvement in the movement with confusion or even hostility.
Part of the reason we revere him today was because he stood largely alone at the time.
And that’s the thing. It’s so much easier to join a cause that’s already been won. There’s a reason the marchers of 2015 outnumbered those of 50 years ago by at least 30 to 1. While we were dealing with street vendors and porta-poties, they faced tear gas and billy-clubs. Real social change rarely comes with funnel cake. I got the impression those around me understood this fact. We were there to honor those who led the movement and celebrate their success, but we were also there to energize ourselves for the work that needs to be done.
David Goodman, brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, reminded us that in some states it’s easier to vote with a gun permit than a college ID. In fact, almost all of the speakers at Mishkan Israel focused their remarks of the growing disenfranchisement movement in our country, and our duty to oppose it. It’s only in hindsight that poll taxes and literacy tests appear so blatantly evil. Plenty of people defended their use at the time just as plenty defend the elimination of early voting and same-day registration today. Fifty years from now, we will look back on the current wave of disenfranchisement and wonder what people were thinking.
Professor Susannah Heschel told the audience at Mishkan Israel: “Today we’re on a pilgrimage to remember, not simply to remember what we Jews contributed to the civil rights movement— no, we’re here to thank the Civil Rights movement for what it has given to us as Jews.” Her father was a religious leader who aimed to shock people out of complacency; to truly honor his legacy, we must still be willing to shock people out of complacency today. He spoke of praying feet, but he also warned that a consensus of conscience means nothing without “incessant action.”
This incessant action is still necessary. This is why we are marching in Selma still today. We must not only march, but also raise our voices against injustice still… even when we can’t quite see past the slight curve in the bridge we are marching across.
I’ve been thinking about numbers lately. Not in a Jewish, gematria-type way, but in a way that kinda makes me wish I had developed my quantitative reasoning skills. If I had, I’d be a bit better prepared for life moments like this…
When I was at Brandeis, I was required to take a course for “Quantitative Reasoning,” which ended up being something about the history of scientific innovation. In other words, it was a course designed for people like me, who got itchy thinking about integers.
But when the organization you’ve been employed by for the last seven years turns 15 years old, you start to consider a lot of numbers. The number of programs and services delivered, the number of partners in our region, the number of staff over that number of years. In an organization that has grown so much, in a region that is so large.. well, all that number-crunching is what I like to call a “special project.”
So where to start?
Well, where would you start? Think about your own workplace- who’s keeping up with the daily ins and outs of your organization? Who in your family or among your friends is keeping records of important life moments? Do you have someone that holds all the institutional memory?
Most of us rely on digital assistance these days — large archived email lists, folders of uploaded photos. But collecting all this data for work has gotten me thinking about the importance of archives! (Hey, I’m a museum professional, what did you expect?)
Our museum collection is filled with records from Southern congregations. These records are incredible resources for looking back into the everyday lives of Jewish communities. Minutes from sisterhood meetings, confirmation photos with names carefully handwritten on the back, ledgers with all the members and when they paid their dues, newsletters that include gems like the rabbi’s sermons and welcomes given to guests to town. Groups that have a designated secretary often embody record keeping at its finest.
The primary source documents are precious — and the documentation that goes along with preserving everything in an archive is just as important as the items themselves. As a museum registrar, I’ve got filing cabinets filled with records about records, digital files and images on all the objects in our collection. Collections management is essentially that fine balance of not only preserving objects but also creating and maintaining documentation to provide accessibility and accountability to the interested public, and to ensure that their meaning and origin is not lost.
All that to say, because the ISJL provides such a wide range of services to a variety of audiences, each department has been maintaining data in their own unique way. To commemorate our 15th year, I’m starting on a project to develop a common institutional memory, a system where we can access when we had programs in Montgomery, Alabama over the last 15 years, whose weddings were officiated by ISJL rabbis, and how many people have attended Jewish Cinema South Film festivals. I’ll be looking through old CIRCA magazines, trip reports, conference rosters, digital folders on our common drive… and figuring out the best ways to quantify our impact on this region.
So invite you to join me in this journey into numbers and impact. Take a minute and reflect on what you’ve got archived from the last 15 years of your life. What would your numbers be? How would you quantify the impact of your life? And how do you quantify your personal Jewish impact? Number of d’vrei torah given, number of matzoh balls made, or number of blog posts written? Looks like I’m already working on my own numbers, and not just my colleagues’ collective contributions!